Haneem Christian celebrates gender abundance through their sensitive photographic portraits
The photographer explains how they aim to represent the “truth” of the people they photograph as an extension of their own self exploration.
- Elfie Thomas
- 5 January 2022
Haneem Christian is a queer, non-binary visual poet from Cape Town, South Africa. Working within medium format photography and more recently directing, it’s really truth that lies at the centre of Haneem’s creative practice. Between image making mediums their work celebrates the lives and experiences of Black and brown queer and trans people, and covers a wide range of themes; from chosen family, gender abundance and joy, to forgotten histories, loss and grief. A guiding principle for Haneem is to explore the parallels between their own experiences and those of their collaborators. Thus, their creative practice has become an “extension of my truth created with others whose truths align very deeply with mine.”
This deeply collaborative creative process is a powerful element in Haneem’s images. “I am not here to take,” they say, stressing the importance of acknowledging the boundaries of the people they photograph and prioritising the ways in which collaborators feel most themselves. “I am just a mirror, here to reflect the might and beauty.” In order to do this, Haneem is careful not to approach a new project with an “aesthetic” in mind. They begin with a “feeling” and work carefully to establish a ground of mutual understanding with a collaborator. A project then grows organically with both individuals exploring their shared connection.
This careful process is particularly successful in Haneem’s series She, a project which explores “what it would look like if we could be anyone we chose to be.” For the creative and their collaborator in this instance, River Moon, this materialised as a four-part project with a celebration of gender abundance at its core. Over a multiple day shoot, Haneem brought to life four sides of River Moon’s identity. The project includes an image which envisions River Moon as a bride, draped head to toe in a white gown. Such bridal majesty finds a sensuous contrast in one image, Barbie Dreams, where we meet another of River Moon’s personas. Attired in sugar-sweet baby pink, River Moon fixes the viewer with a confident, sensuous gaze. Through celebrating these contrasting facets of their subject, the project brings to life “images that once lived only in the depths of her imagination,” Haneem explains.
Since the communities Haneem photographs are often marginalised or abused “purely because of the bodies [they] are born into,” the space for creative freedom Haneem creates through their practice is a powerful “offering” to their collaborators. In particular it is their sensitive eye that allows a collaborator’s pain to be sensitively interpreted, yet Haneem aims to steer clear of narratives of queerness which centre entirely around pain. While “those stories are absolutely important,” they say, “It is not our full truth.” Instead Haneem works to “alchemise” the darker emotions in their projects into moments of joy and celebration.
This is brilliantly realised in further projects like Memorial Ball and Jannah Lies at the feet of Thy Mother. Haneem began working on the latter during an upsurge of gender-based violence in South Africa and subsequent protests of 2019. Amid this particularly turbulent period for trans and queer people, Haneem turned their lens to the uplifting power of mother-daughter relationships and chosen families. By contrast, Memorial Ball is a response to the tragic death of Kirvan Fortuin, mother of the House of Le Cap, in a homophobic attack. Haneem wanted to accentuate the joy of Kirvan’s memory, in balance with the sense of devastation of their death. In turn within Memorial Ball we find the House of Le Cap standing proud, protective and resolute around Kirvan’s photograph, adorned with a “mother of the year” sash.
Another of Haneem’s projects which stood out to It’s Nice That is The Believer which explores the intersections of Haneem’s identity as a queer Muslim person. While Haneem was growing up they never saw queer Muslim representation and these two parts of their identity felt separate and disconnected. In The Believer, Haneem wanted to commemorate their queer Muslim ancestors who were “written out of history but live on in our genetic memory,” and so the project has become as historical as it is immediate and personal. The Believer is a favourite project for Haneem too, they explain, “it makes my child-self feel so seen.”
Haneem Christian: Jannah Lies at the Feet of thy Mother i : Chester and Autumn (Copyright © Haneem Christian, 2021)
About the Author
Elfie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in November 2021 after finishing an art history degree at Sussex University. She is particularly interested in creative projects which shed light on histories that have been traditionally overlooked or misrepresented.